Sacred Heart applies lessons learned in grief services to other life transitions

September 15, 2011


In the past 25 years, it has become commonplace to support the grieving with bereavement services that typically include individual counseling, group therapy, classes and workshops.

Now psychologists, social workers, spiritual leaders and counselors are beginning to realize that techniques used to comfort those suffering from the death of a loved one may also help people mourning other profound losses in life, from divorce and disability to military deployment, job loss or even retirement.

Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis., is one institution championing the idea that people trying to negotiate life-changing events can benefit from the same type of services once reserved for bereavement. Two years ago, it expanded the scope of its free grief and bereavement center, founded in 1989 as The Healing Place, to include resources for addressing non-death-related losses as well.

"When Eau Claire began feeling the impact of the nation's recession a few years ago, we decided to reevaluate the needs of the community," says Amy Segerstrom, coordinator and counselor at The Healing Place. "We had already begun transitioning some services to include chronic illness and disability, but we realized that our ability to help people suffering from unemployment and rising divorce rates was inadequate."

Segerstrom, her co-counselor Jane Hilgart-Nessel, and the late Fr. Lawrence Dunklee, who had directed mission integration/ethics at Sacred Heart, helped to develop an initiative to broaden the scope of The Healing Place, a community outreach service of the hospital's Center for Spiritual Care.

"The Healing Place had been established by the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the hospital," says Mary Ellen Bliss, interim director of spiritual care and former administrative assistant to Fr. Dunklee. "To celebrate The Healing Place's 20th anniversary, we changed its name to The Healing Place: A Center for Life's Journeys, and began our broader mission with a daylong, community-wide event featuring Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen To Good People."

Within the year, the center had served 3,600 people — a 20 percent increase in its client base — and reinforced the group's conviction that there was a critical community need for an emotionally safe place to process life's harshest transitions.

Coping skills
There are a myriad of strong emotions associated with significant loss including sadness, anger, spiritual doubts and the like. "We've learned that regardless of the kind of loss a person may be experiencing, the facets of grief are similar," says Segerstrom. "So the toolbox of coping skills we can teach is often comparable as well.

"We offer a haven where people can connect with what is happening inside themselves, and where they can speak about their grief to another human while feeling supported, validated and understood," Segerstrom says. "Our job is to listen, make observations and ask questions to help clients reflect on their experiences more deeply and become aware of their own insights. They are the experts; we are the companions that help facilitate the process."

Though techniques may vary according to a client's age, gender, personality and mental or physical challenges, most benefit from a combination of one-on-one sessions with a counselor and participation in groups whose members have had similar experiences, be they widows with small children, cancer patients, the newly divorced or suicide survivors.

"We teach certain specific skills, like journaling, physical self-care, how to reframe thinking, how to confront questions about the purpose and meaning of life," says Segerstrom. "Of course, if other issues — alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness, clinical depression — present themselves, we get medical and psychological help for people as well."

Reopening to life
Bill Peterson, 50, an instrumentation technician at Nestlé USA in Eau Claire, is one of The Healing Place's clients who benefited from the expansion of services there. Faced with a divorce in 2009 after almost 29 years of marriage, he says he was "in trouble and struggling" when he learned about the center in a church bulletin.

"I realized the self-help route was not going to be sufficient for me," says Peterson, who sought one-on-one counseling before joining the center's first "Transcending Divorce" group. Despite being the only male member of the group, Peterson says the program, based on Alan Wolfelt's book, The Wilderness of Divorce: Finding Your Way, lessened his pain and allowed him to begin "a process of forgiveness for both myself and my former wife."

In fact, Peterson has enrolled in the class two more times, now as a peer facilitator. "I've learned that healing is a journey, not a destination," he says. "In the case of divorce, age, sex, length of marriage, whether you were left or did the leaving — it really doesn't matter. I feel I can help others by sharing my experiences and provoking thought."

Accepting mortality
Another Healing Place client, 56-year-old Dianne Rhein of Eau Claire, has utilized multiple programs there, both professionally and personally.

"I am the poster child for the scope and mission of the center," she says. "I've been involved with it since its start-up in 1989; at the time I was a hospice social worker and facilitated support groups with Sacred Heart."

In 2002, Rhein was diagnosed with Sjögren's Syndrome, a chronic disease similar to rheumatoid arthritis, and enrolled in an educational series there called "Renewing Life" led by people with serious health issues. "Talking with other people who have had health challenges for 20 or 30 years really helped me put my own issues in a more manageable perspective," she says.

When Rhein's sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer the following year, Rhein knew just where to turn for resources both for her sister, and, after her sister's death, for herself. And when her 25-year marriage ended in 2007, Rhein turned once again to The Healing Place.

"Initially I took another eight-part educational series called 'Trust in Life,' for people trying to cope with a variety of life changes. And when a divorce support group became available, I took that as well," says Rhein.

In 2008, Rhein was diagnosed with cancer herself and underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Shortly thereafter, the employment agency where she had worked for 17 years went through a restructuring. Because of her health issues, she retired on long-term disability.

Since then, Rhein's cancer has returned; it is now metastatic and incurable. After 34 rounds of palliative chemotherapy to slow the growth rate of the disease and minimize pain, Rhein says she is now "turning the situation over to the divine."

"Everything I've learned at The Healing Place — the journaling, the meditation, the stories about sorrow and resilience I've heard from other people — is helping me accept my situation and face my worst fears," says Rhein. "I consider myself a lifelong learner; the more I speak about my realities, the bolder I get."

To that end, Rhein is now in one-on-one counseling to take what she calls "the bold step to transition beyond death and dying," as well as to engage in discussions about "how to prepare to support my two young adult daughters, 21 and 25, through my dying process.

"Needless to say, I think the center is a fantastic, forward-thinking place with a very caring staff and no bureaucracy, no stigmas, and unbelievably, no cost for services," Rhein says. "Being there is an entirely unique, entirely humanizing experience."

And that, says Bliss, is why The Healing Place embodies the mission of its founders.

"The Hospital Sisters wanted us to care for everyone regardless of their station in life and ability to pay for services," she says. "They believed we are here to provide. In 1978, we started a St. Francis Food Pantry in the garage of the convent to ease physical hunger. That pantry has grown to occupy a huge building of its own. Now The Healing Place, begun to ease emotional hunger, is continuing to grow as well."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.